December 01, 2022
By Ben Romans
I'll never forget a friend’s excitement when he thought he had a potential record smallmouth on his line … or the look on his face when he realized it was actually a modest-sized northern pike. Before I could tell him to toss it in the live well, he plucked the hook with a pair of pliers and sent the fish home. What he didn’t realize, and what many anglers don’t know, is pike are delicious, especially if you can prepare the meat to taste like one of the most prized crustaceans of the sea—lobster.
I confess, I was once like my friend. Unless I caught an abnormally large or feisty pike, fighting one was an inconvenience that robbed me of time that could be spent chasing more prized fish. But that’s the life of a jackfish. Some anglers want to eradicate them from lakes, while others put the species on a pedestal. Love ’em or hate ’em, there’s no denying they are among the most prolific, aggressive, tenacious gamefish around—and there’s good reason they’ve earned nicknames like “water wolves,” “slough sharks,” “gators” and “slimers,” among others.
For the uninitiated, northern pike can be an intimidating fish to process. Not only are pike some of the slimiest of all freshwater fish, but the slime is coupled with a funk you can’t get off your hands for three days afterward—or out of your nose for an additional two. And let’s not forget those Y bones—the line of bones that makes it so hard to cut a usable fillet with traditional fish-cleaning techniques. However, after I learned how to properly process, prepare and cook pike, my attitude toward them changed. Today, I’m proud to say I’m an avid pike angler (especially with a long rod and flies) and I have no qualms harvesting a few for my favorite recipe: Poor Man’s Lobster (see below).
Simple and Tasty
Pike meat is some of the most delicious freshwater fare available, especially in the spring when water temps remain cold and the flesh is somewhat firmer than it is later in the summer. The truth, though, is you can use this recipe with a number of fish. In Alaska, it’s a popular way to prepare monkfish, and if you love fish but aren’t an angler, a few nice cod fillets from your local fish market should work just fine. I’ve heard of others using haddock, tilapia, burbot and halibut with delicious results.
From start to finish, a batch of bite-sized nuggets takes approximately 15 minutes to complete. They are firm but flaky when cooked, and the sugar and salt in the recipe amplify the meat’s natural sweet taste. In fact, the flavor is so different from countless other fish recipes that it’s hard to believe you’re eating pike at all—and I’ve had a hard time convincing others of that fact after a taste test.
The great thing about the cooking process is it’s as simple as boiling pasta. The most difficult step is filleting a couple of pike (I recommend the five-fillet boneless method; there are lots of videos on YouTube). What’s more, there aren’t a lot of ingredients involved, so feel free to make substitutions or dash the cooked fish with your own unique blend of spices, such as dill, garlic, olive oil, thyme or pepper, before serving. Too, your boiling water can pull double duty if you add potatoes, onions, celery or scallions to the mix. I’ve even heard of some people substituting citrus-flavored soda for the water and sugar (or using a half-soda, half-water blend). Instead of dipping the finished pieces in butter, try brushing butter on boiled pieces spread out on a baking sheet and then broiling for a minute or two.
Keep a few water wolves on your next outing and give this recipe a try. I think you and your dinner guests will be surprised how close you can tailor one of the most undervalued fish to taste like fresh lobster without paying $40 a pound.
Poor Man's Lobster Recipe with Pike Fillets
- 4 to 6 pike fillets
- 2 to 3 qt. water
- 2 c. sugar
- 3 tbsp. salt
- 1 tsp. parsley flakes
- Lemon wedges
- Paprika (optional)
- One stick of butter or garlic butter
- Fillet the fish and remove the skin and any stray bones.
- Cut the fillets into 2- or 3-inch cubes or strips. Larger chunks don’t flake apart as easily as smaller ones.
- Boil the water and add the salt, sugar and parsley flakes. Stir until salt and sugar dissolve.
- Drop the cubed cuts of fish into the boiling water and let cook. Stir occasionally, but not with so much force that the meat flakes apart.
- When all the meat appears white and flaky and is floating on the surface (approximately 5 minutes), remove the pieces with a mesh strainer and spread them on a paper towel-covered plate.
- While many people prefer to eat the pike without seasoning, dash the fish with paprika for more flavor.
- Serve with lemon wedges and a dipping bowl of melted butter or garlic butter.